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Smartphone Battery Life Officially a Joke

Top 10 Ways to Save Battery Life on Your Smartphone

10. Play a tune inside your head but keep your headphones plugged in—just so you can still look cool.

9. Turn off push e-mail and manually sync each time you open your inbox. Then try to guess how many new messages will arrive. Fun!

8. Keep all phone conversations under 15 seconds. They’ll get the gist. (You: “How are the kids?” Her: “Good.” You: “I got offered that promotion!” Her: “Great!” You: “But we’ve got to move tomorrow.” Her “What?!” You: “Talk soon!”)

7. Check into places by just yelling to everyone in the establishment that you’ve arrived. Then proclaim that you’re the mayor.

Sorry, I had some more ideas, but my smartphone ran out of power while I was typing. Seriously, how did battery life become a joke?

Let me give you an example. I put a brand-new Android phone on my nightstand with about half a charge left before I go to sleep and set the alarm. 6 a.m. rolls around and I happen to wake up. The alarm was supposed to go off 15 minutes ago! Did I set it to p.m. by mistake? Nope, the device was just dead. This is not progress.

Today the smartphone wars are all about who has the fastest dual-core processor, the biggest and highest-res screen, and the sharpest camera and camcorder. But what good are all these whiz-bang features and horsepower if you need to reach for an outlet by lunchtime? For me, a true superphone is a device that will get you through most of the day on a charge.

This is what passes for normal now. Last week, I unplugged a Motorola Photon 4G phone at 6 a.m. I used the device intermittently during my commute (mostly for listening to music with the Spotify app) and then during breakfast when I got to the office to read a few online articles. By 10 a.m., I had already used 40 percent of the battery. That’s pretty sad, but most smartphones I’ve used in 2011 offer similar endurance.

The good news is that Android phones have power saver modes that you can engage to save precious juice. In this case, I had Nighttime Save on, which stops syncing data after 15 minutes of inactivity during “off-peak hours” (10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.). But I could have been more aggressive by selecting Maximum Battery Saver, which stops syncing data after 15 minutes of inactivity at any time. HTC and Samsung offer similar settings. But none of this changes the fact that battery technology simply isn’t keeping up with everything else getting crammed inside phones.

It certainly doesn’t help that most carriers continue to list talk time for phones as their battery life rating. Hello, who talks anymore? As a result, battery life numbers get inflated versus real-world use. For instance, T-Mobile claims that the myTouch 4G Slide offers up to 9 hours of talk time. But on our battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over 3G/4G on 40-percent brightness, the device lasted 6.2 hours. That's a huge difference.

I do have to give Apple credit. In addition to talk time and standby time, the company’s site lists Internet use time for the iPhone 4 (on 3G and Wi-Fi), video playback time, and audio playback time. And sure enough, its 3G web usage claim is in line with our results. We saw about 7.5 hours, slightly better than the 7 hours advertised and the 5.8-hour average for phones we’ve tested. Still, we need more juice.

What I want to see is smartphone makers pushing the efficiency envelope as much as they are when it comes to features and sheer speed. Maybe it will take a whole new approach to the way smartphone operating systems handle apps that constantly update in the background. Or maybe it will take new display technology, such as screens made using photovoltaic cells that sip energy from ambient light. Whatever it is, I look forward to the day when a phone maker brags about endurance instead of gigahertz.